Nature: An Outmoded Concept
In this age of environmental anxiety, nature has replaced motherhood, apple pie and the flag as the thing all right-thinking people should revere, support, defend and give generously to preserve.But although everybody talks about nature and everybody is in favor of it, nobody seems to be too clear on what it is.Generally, people use the word "nature" to define a single entity, something that is separate from human beings, untouched by technology, and more or less unchanging.The trouble is, that kind of nature doesn't exist.Obviously, something exists. If what you mean when you use the word is the cosmos, the whole astonishing spectrum of all that is around us and within us -- including us -- you are on much more solid ground. But such a view -- even though it may make more sense -- doesn't help win political arguments, sell anything, or support your claim to be a deeper and better person than whoever you're against.The idea of nature as an abstraction distinct from human activity appears to be a Western invention. There are some hints of it in early Greek philosophy, but it really came into its own around the 16th and 17th centuries, with the birth of modern science.Scientists then believed that in order to be able to study nature they had to somehow stand apart from it. Since then, many scientists have realized that it is just as productive to think of science as the universe studying itself.But the idea of nature and humanity as separate entities stuck. It proved equally useful to groups with profoundly different philosophies. Boosters of science and progress could view nature as dangerous, in need of being civilized by the human hand -- nature bad, people good. Romantics could rhapsodize about the wisdom of nature and bemoan the loss of innocence that came with civilization -- nature good, people bad.Those basic ideas, now centuries old, are still flailing away at each other, like two bickering old men who have forgotten what started their argument.But writers and thinkers from a number of different fields are trying to pull the rug out from under this old quarrel.Historians say the idea of nature is in fact the product of a certain time and place, a social construction. As one puts it, "The idea of nature contains, though often unnoticed, an extraordinary amount of human history."Some anthropologists note that primitive peoples, although they have many ideas about different living things, landmarks and spirits in their environments, do not think in terms of a single unifying abstract concept that separates all those entities from humanity. And, as Clifford Geertz points out, although most societies have an idea of what is "natural," that is "part of the normal course of things," they have strikingly different ideas of just what fits that definition.Even some ecologists are getting into the act. Daniel Botkin argues that the idea of nature as unchanging, forever seeking balance, is out of touch. On the contrary, ecological science is now learning that, "nature changes over essentially all time scales." Wildlife populations grow and decline, deserts move, forests go through dramatic transitions. So you may preserve an ecosystem, but you're not preserving nature.Then there's technology. The boundary between nature and technology is not clear anywhere on an Earth constantly surveyed by satellites, prodded and analyzed by scientists, where migrating birds carry radio transmitters and whale calls are monitored by underwater sound systems -- and where no self-respecting environmental activist would invade an oil platform or sit in a redwood tree without a cell phone.Where would we be without the popular idea of nature? I suspect a lot better off. We would argue about how to manage ecosystems, and environmentalists would -- I hope -- still win often. But the arguments would have to be about more specific values, such as health and productivity and beauty, and they might be a bit less strident.And in time we all might learn to be as suspicious of people who claim to speak for nature as most of us have become of people who claim to speak for God.